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Thursday, June 21, 2001
Updated: June 26, 2:35 PM ET
Blues for Lenny and Cal

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

What do we make in the U.S. of A.? Spectacle. That's what we make. That's what we're best at. That's what we do. That's who we are.

Cal Ripken
The Bald Eagle exemplified grace on and off the field.
Submitted: A mother's son named Cal Ripken Jr. Another one named Len Bias. One child grows up to be more dependable than, oh, say ... Lou Gehrig. One child doesn't get to grow up to do anything at all, so he will forever represent lost hope, the Father's Day Blues, the truth behind such axioms as: "What a difference a day makes," and "There, but for the grace of God ..."

One man, now middle-aged, makes you think that his Baltimore homey, director Barry Levinson, might have been premature in filming "The Natural" with Robert Redford. Good movie, sure. But wouldn't Levinson have been more at home filming "Bald Eagle: The Very Natural" with, let's see, Russ Crowe as Cal Jr.?

One young man, now deceased, makes you think that director Ted Demme's version of the late '70s and '80s rise and fall of the cocaine trade in America, "Blow," was way too sanitized. Not enough coffins.

Coffin Len Bias. We're all headed there, but not like that. That was criminal. That changed the continuum.

How? Dig it ...

***** ***** *****

Ran into Cal Jr. over halfway through the Streak, on purpose, in 1990. Your boy already knew, was on the beat, back in the late '70s, early '80s, made my bones with "Billy Ball" in Oaktown, a la Rickey Henderson and Billy Martin, Sick Dude. Giants with Joe Altobelli, F. Robby. Seen 'em come and go. Rise and fall. Baseball ... it's like breathing. You don't notice you're doing it until you're not doing it anymore.

Cal Ripken
... but in the end, it's how you finish, Ripken used to say.
Cal was a rookie in '81. People were already going out behind Yo, even back then, that early, at least they were in Cali. Cali was always first, back then. Guess it's not much different now. Yo was considered hip, and if you didn't, you were L-7, really. It went across the board, black, white, well-off, not-so-well-off. Any walk of life. But the other thing about Yo was, it was going to win. Couldn't beat it. So the strong gave up and moved on. The weak gave up and stayed.

Been that way with Yo since Sigmund Freud, or at least since Bob Fosse. Just because a guy was a big athlete wouldn't save him. Always knew Rick wouldn't go out like that. Say what you want about Rick, but he's pretty pure. I learned this about Cal. They said he looked like his old man. I didn't see it then. He was tall, graceful, athletic, head full of dark curls. Cal's old man looked stark, bleak, like a bald eagle wearing double-knits. Lot of stuff up in that bald head, though.

"Lookit -- he's big as Murray!" I marveled at Cal Jr. Marveled at Kirby Puckett the same way when he came in. "He's as wide as he is tall!" But Kirby, as infectious as he was, wasn't built to last like Cal Jr. Puck's eyes betrayed him. It's something different for everybody. Except Cal Jr.

The Murray I referred to: Eddie Murray. Watched Cal at the cage, watching Murray. Big guy. Fluid. I mean Cal Jr. Dawned on me. "He's studying this."

"Always be ready to spin on the first-pitch fastball," Murray counseled. Cal Jr. nodded.

Alto had already managed the Giants by then, or was in the act. Real sweetheart of a dude. Had a club short on talent. It needed a despot. Rochester was his home, ex-Oriole Triple-A skipper, Oriole all the way. The Giants never understood him; of course, their shortstop was nicknamed "Bones." That didn't really help matters. No wonder Alto got fired sooner than usual. But the Orioles brought him in to manage the O's after Earl gave it up. Alto managed them, his Rochester boys, to a World Series win against the Phillies. Alto had Murray and young Cal in 1983.

By the the time 1990 rolled around and I checked in, Cal was well into his unspectacular but certifiable defensive greatness, had an MVP award gathering dust and another on the way, in his only four-errors-a-year-in-the-short-field prime, his 20-homer a year routine, his he-anticipates-and-gets-to-everything humdrum. Twenty bombs a year might not seem like many compared to 70, say, and it might be said to be routine for a big-league third baseman (just not for 20 years; there is no routine 20 years); 20 bombs didn't become routine for shortstops until Cal did it -- he raised the stakes.

In a way, Cal Jr. spawned the A-Rods, the Jeets, the Nomars. Now it is routine for a great big-league shortstop to hit 20 bombs, and by 1990, a great big-league shortstop was what Cal had long ago, by then, come to personify. It was often brutally hard work, making it look so easy. I took my young son at age five to see Cal Jr. and Rick play, at Memorial Stadium, when Henderson was a Yankee. He stole four bases. Mostly I talked to my boy about the way Cal played angles in the short field.

The Streak was a little more than halfway along when I came to see him. He'd already played in more than 1,300 ballgames. Only five straight seasons to go. So your boy came in from the Illy, there to hook him up. He gave me what I needed. No more. No less. That was him.

  Your boy can't begin to tell you how lunatic 2,632 consecutive games played is. Remember when Gehrig's record of 2,130 was sacrosanct? Cal went to work on it, like water on a rock, like waves on the fortress by the shore, just doing what he did.  
  

Some guys play the coquette, tossing their heads and pretending like they don't want you to love 'em just for how they play. Some guys want it too bad. Cal just gave you what you needed. Only his thinning hair, his toddlers, his transformation into the image of his father betrayed him. His game never did. Its very seemingly unspectacular nature became its hook. The very thing that allowed him to do it, the numbing sameness of it, became in the end its cachet.

It was a mighty thing Cal took on. Makes hitting in 56 consecutive games seem like a nice thing, but somehow in a different league. You have to play, what, 16 straight years in the big-leagues, every game, all 162, mostly at shortstop, to do what Cal Jr. did. I can't tell you how impossible that is. More impossible, I would imagine, than hitting in 56 straight. Back in 1990, the last thing I said to Cal wasn't, "Well, Big Guy, see you in September, 56 games from now." It was, "Well, Big Guy -- see you in five years."

Your boy can't begin to tell you how lunatic 2,632 consecutive games played is. Remember when Gehrig's record of 2,130 was sacrosanct? Cal went to work on it, like water on a rock, like waves on the fortress by the shore, just doing what he did. Could have been named Old Inevitable. Show up and make plays. Wasn't like he was just there. You can't be just there and start at short in the big leagues. Well, you can, but not for long. Not for that long.

Cal Jr.'s brother, Billy? He was lucky to get his years in. And he knew it.

"You can tell by their asses they ain't the same," one of you heckler fans shouted toward the field in Miami, one spring training.

"We ain't? No s---," a much-smaller Billy muttered.

Can't begin to tell you how difficult it would be to play 2,632 games at shortstop. Need the grace of a gazelle, two-legged, and the ball acumen of a John McGraw. You must almost never do the wrong thing on a ballfield. Nobody does that. Yet Cal Jr. was halfway there when I went to see him. Halfway there. People were sniping, he shouldn't, he can't. Just kept on playing every day, through the years, including 1986 ...

***** ***** *****

Len Bias
The quick, strong and athletic Len Bias was the total package.
Lenny. There's less there for me to work with with Lenny. I was in the D.C. area by the time of Len Bias. He had mad crazy stupid game. Hops like Dominique. Game like Jordan. Michael Jordan did all the things he did without peer because Len Bias died two days after he was made the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, a pick that made Larry Bird happy. "Draft him and we have a chance against Jordan," Bird might have said, and if those weren't the exact words, they reflected his sentiments.

Len Bias went to Northwestern High in the shadow of the Maryland campus, Hyattsville and College Park. Dunking crazy. More than Jordan. But not just dunking. Balling. Quick, strong, athletic. Total package, except maybe for the handle. Give him the handle, give him hands the size of Jordan's, and it's on. Beating up on Carolina. Dunking backward on 'em. Struck me as aware. Looking at you, nodding, knowing who you are ...

But there was no bald eagle, no gaunt figure in the ear of Len Bias, no cage for him to stand around with the veterans of his craft and learn when to spin. Not back then. Talk about hardship. If he'd gone a year earlier, maybe he never meets Brian Tribble. Had to figure it out on his own. Lefty can't be blamed for not being Len Bias' daddy, can he? No Eddie Murray at Maryland. Plenty of Tribbles though. The trouble with Tribble was no joke here.

Oh, well, sure, there were some basketball equivalents of Eddie Murray. Larry Bird, Dr. J., Charles Oakley, Kevin McHale. But Lenny hadn't gotten to the league yet.

"Blow" cleaned it up. It ain't that pretty. 1986 NBA draft. A war, not on drugs, but for each individual for his own soul. Roy Tarpley, how many times? Chris Washburn? Met him. Train wreck. Watched him piddle it all away.

  On the street, word was that within a week of his death the dealers were calling their stuff "Len Bias" to advertise its potency and attract the clientele: "Got that Len Bias right here."  
  

But Len Bias, he wasn't some slack-jawed faker. This was the No. 2 pick back when that still meant something. If he had come along today, Len Bias would probably be in his second year in the league, like Stevie Francis, and maybe he never even meets Brian Tribble. Boom. It don't take much. Just the wrong stuff at the wrong time in the wrong system.

On the street, word was that within a week of his death the dealers were calling their stuff "Len Bias" to advertise its potency and attract the clientele: "Got that Len Bias right here."

***** ***** *****

Cal Jr. was not that far away from all this. Baltimore is no playpen. It all happened in Maryland. And Maryland ain't all that big. But it has some crazy boundaries. And it's just big enough for the gamut of life and death.

Cal had peers in baseball who had struggled with blow, and no, not just the black ones, like it says in the paper and on TV. No point in who, because we've all struggled against something or another -- could be a gambling habit; could be a woman, or two, or the entire gender; could be Yo, or heroin, if you are in Plano, Texas, or sniffing glue in the attic; it all can make spectators and spectacles of us.

Cal Ripken
Cal Ripken Jr. began to look more and more like his father with each passing day of his career.
Not Cal Jr. though. No spectacle he. So Cal moved on and five years later -- ! -- set this baseball record no one will every approach again, not in our lifetimes, not in anybody's lifetimes, probably.

Cal's old man died, but by then Cal had become his old man, so he didn't really die. The Bald Eagle is getting ready to drop some baseball knowledge now. Saw how he was with Eddie Murray. Saw that he had listened to Cal Sr., Alto, Earl Weaver, saw him say, no matter what claptrap people think, "Everybody knows Robby (Alomar) is a special ballplayer," saw how he was with Brady, with Eric Davis, when he had the cancer. It wasn't just baseball with Cal. It was how he carried himself getting to the game, during the game and after the game that got him through. That was the only way. To realize the game is always on.

Lenny Bias never figured it out. Never had a chance. Coffin Len. The Warning.

Baseball has had its Mahatrma, its Sultan of Swat, its Say Hey Kid, its Jackie. Now it has its Bald Eagle.

Basketball had its Bird, its Magic, Michael Jordan. Len Bias? We'll never know. Michael Jordan doesn't remind us of Len Bias. But we don't know what alternate universe would have been if Lenny hadn't gone out like that.

  Does Cal Jr. have ego, does he have his share of pride? You bet. He'll overcome it. For now, he's a far better promotion than Bat Night, or Frosty Root Beer T-Shirt Night. It'll be Cal Jr. Night, all summer. Every thing he does now becomes in service of the game.  
  

"Blow" doesn't remind of us Len Bias either. Too sanitized. The human cost is greater than a woman lost, brushes with the law which, just as it might try to be, cannot reconstitute a man's character; or even hard time. Coffin Len. That's the shame of it. Because for all your boy knows, Len Bias had a future and a presence now no different than Rickey Henderson's, or Michael's Jordan's, or Cal Ripken's. No less. Who is to say Bias wouldn't have fit there? They were all Naturals. Blow got to one of them.

What can be gathered from revisiting the drug-ravaged NBA Class of 1986, and the lesson of Len Bias? Maybe nothing. Maybe advice does no good. Each generation must find its own way.

All I know is what I read in the paper. In the home sheet, Cal Jr. had front page play Tuesday and Wednesday, A section, both days, front page of sports, both days, four pages sports, both days, full of testimonials Cal Jr. deserves but, if he's lucky, doesn't fully believe. Meanwhile, buried in Style: famous young TV producer avoids jail time and felony conviction of possession of Yo and other drugs that his addiction told him to procure.

He'll get help.

Coffin Len can't.

He can't grow into the next phase. But Cal Jr. will.

Does Cal Jr. have ego, does he have his share of pride? You bet. He'll overcome it. For now, he's a far better promotion than Bat Night, or Frosty Root Beer T-Shirt Night. It'll be Cal Jr. Night, all summer. Every thing he does now becomes in service of the game.

My boy? He remembers. He's home from college. Hope he gets it. All he has to do is show up. Make plays. Even the routine can become spectacular. No need to rush spectacular. Let the game come to you.

Somebody shoulda told Lenny.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."